The Decision to Evacuate
The Decision to Evacuate
IN the period of the withdrawal to Thermopylae the overall situation in the Middle East had been changing rapidly for the worse. Once the Germans had entered Belgrade on 13 April it had been clear to the authorities in Cairo that the Balkan front was about to collapse. Next day the New Zealand Government was told that because of the critical condition in Cyrenaica the Polish Brigade and 7 Australian Division could not be sent to Greece. Fearing the worst, it immediately suggested that preparations be made for the possible evacuation of W Force.
As it happened Wavell, when in Greece on 11–13 April, had warned1 Wilson that he must expect no reinforcements and had authorised de Guingand to discuss evacuation plans with certain responsible officers. This had been a wise precaution for Wavell, Cunningham and Longmore on 15 April were ‘forced to the conclusion that the only possible course was to withdraw the British troops from Greece.’2 They could not at this stage adopt or even mention this course of action. The suggestion had to come from the Greek Government.
The following day General Papagos made the first move when he suggested3 to General Wilson that W Force should be withdrawn. This brought matters to a head. Wilson informed Middle East Headquarters and on 17 April Rear-Admiral H. T. Baillie- Grohman was sent to Greece to prepare for the evacuation. In Athens a Joint Planning Staff was formed and reconnaissance parties were sent to report on the more suitable beaches.
When informed of the Greek proposal Mr Churchill on 17 April had replied:
In Athens the situation was fast approaching a crisis. An unofficial order to the army in Albania had given certain troops Easter leave and they were now in the city ‘bewildered and angry.’2 There was a suggestion that the King and his Government should depart for Crete. And on 18 April M. Koryzis committed suicide ‘after telling the King that he felt that he had failed him in the task entrusted to him.’3
At the same time General Wilson, owing to the frequent changes in location of his headquarters and the unreliability of the wireless communications in the mountains, was not always able to supply the information required by the authorities in both Cairo and London. ‘For this I was taken severely to task by our Prime Minister, who often referred subsequently to this deficiency on my part.’4 Nor could he always be definite. On 18 April Wilson first stated that his force could fight on for another month and then doubted if his units would be in position to hold the Thermopylae line.
The problems of Air Chief Marshal Longmore were just as formidable; his resources were quite inadequate for the demands now being made upon them. So that day in London, as a result of his request for guidance, the relative importance of the many problems of the Middle East was at last clearly stated. In a directive sent by Mr Churchill and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East were advised that, though the future of W Force affected the whole Empire, ‘victory in Libya counts first, evacuation of troops from Greece second.’ Shipping to Tobruk, unless indispensable to victory, had to be supplied when convenient; Iraq could be ‘ignored and Crete … worked up later.’5
Evacuation now seemed inevitable but there was as yet no suggestion of haste. Wavell advised Wilson that if W Force could itself securely hold the Thermopylae line there was no reason to hasten the evacuation. Unless the political situation forced an early withdrawal the line should be held for some time and the enemy forced to fight. Attention could then be given to the work in Crete, the defence of Egypt could be strengthened and the evacuation plans could be prepared without too much haste.
1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 200.
2 The Prime Minister, M. Koryzis, ‘accused the minister of war of the treachery … he demanded the return of the men to the front and cancelled arrangements for the Government's departure to Crete.’—Laird Archer, Balkan Journal, pp. 180–3; Wilson, p. 93.
4 Wilson, p. 92.
5 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 201.
Meanwhile in Athens General Wilson had attended a conference with the King, General Papagos, Sir Michael Palairet (British Minister), Air Vice-Marshal D'Albiac, Rear-Admiral Turle and some members of the Greek Cabinet. They had discussed the military situation and whether it was advisable for the British to ‘hold on or evacuate’, the political situation and the defeatism that ‘was now getting widespread.’1
The results of this discussion were given to General Wavell, who arrived in Athens the next day, 19 April, and immediately conferred with General Wilson to consider the future action of W Force and to decide whether the British troops should or should not evacuate Greece. ‘The arguments in favour of fighting it out, which [it] is always better to do if possible, were: the tying up of enemy forces, army and air, which would result therefrom; the strain the evacuation would place on the Navy and Merchant Marine; the effect on the morale of the troops and the loss of equipment which would be incurred. In favour of withdrawal the arguments were: the question as to whether our forces in Greece could be reinforced as this was essential; the question of the maintenance of our forces, plus the feeding of the civil population; the weakness of our air forces with few airfields and little prospect of receiving reinforcements; the little hope of the Greek Army being able to recover its morale.’2 Furthermore, the support of an army in Greece could so weaken the force in the Western Desert that its position could be precarious. Thus it was a case of sentiment versus facts, with instinct suggesting a fight to a finish and reason pointing out that the shortage of food and air cover were really the decisive factors. The decision was therefore made to withdraw from Greece. Evacuation would start on the night of 28–29 April and, with the destruction about Piræus harbour and the limitations of smaller ports, the general feeling was that the Navy would be fortunate if it ‘embarked 30% of the force.’3
1 Wilson, p. 93. J. Hetherington, Blamey, p. 104, gives a note from Wilson to Blamey dated 19 April. ‘I found things in Athens very bad yesterday. At a conference with the King and Papagos the latter has lost heart and is adopting the attitude what can do …. Wavell is coming over today, as we are faced with difficult decisions. Yesterday the Greeks were asking us to evacuate the country as soon as possible, but I hope by today they may not be of that mind and will join with us to fight the Germans….’
2 Wilson, pp. 93–4.
3 Report of meeting held on 18 April.
The discussion was opened by General Wavell, who said that the British Army would fight as long as the Greek Army fought. However, if the Greek Government so desired it, the British forces would withdraw.2 Papagos then described the situation so far as the Greeks were concerned: the morale of the forces was weakening; the maintenance of both troops and refugees would soon be a serious problem. The British Minister followed with a message from Mr Churchill stating that if the British left Greece it must be with the consent of the Greek King and Government. After further discussion General Mazarakis decided that ‘he had been called in too late to retrieve the situation and that evacuation was the best solution.’3 This, the obvious conclusion, was accepted by all present. The actual decision was not officially made until the next day. A new government had to be formed and the King wanted some final statement about the morale of the Army of Epirus.
In London Mr Churchill was still confident:
I am increasingly of the opinion that if the generals on the spot think they can hold on in the Thermopylae position for a fortnight or three weeks, and can keep the Greek Army fighting, or enough of it, we should certainly support them, if the Dominions will agree. I do not believe the difficulty of evacuation will increase if the enemy suffers heavy losses. On the other hand, every day the German Air Force is detained in Greece enables the Libyan situation to be stabilised, and may enable us to bring in the extra tanks (to Tobruk). If this is accomplished safely and the Tobruk position holds, we might even feel strong enough to reinforce from Egypt. I am most reluctant to see us quit, and if the troops were British only and the matter could be decided on military grounds alone I would urge Wilson to fight if he thought it possible. Anyhow, before we commit ourselves to evacuation the case must be put squarely to the Dominions after to-morrow's Cabinet. Of course, I do not know the conditions in which our retreating forces will reach the new key position.4
1 Wavell's despatch covering the period 7 February–15 July 1941.
3 Wilson, p. 95.
4 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 202.
Meanwhile, on the night of 20–21 April Wavell had driven north to Blamey's headquarters in the Levadhia area and explained the situation.
He then returned to Athens, where on 21 April he met the King and his new Prime Minister, M. Tsouderos. The officer who had been sent to report on the conditions in Epirus had not yet returned, but the King admitted that there was no Greek force to protect the left flank of the British lines at Thermopylae. Wavell thereupon announced that he would have to attempt the evacuation of W Force. The King agreed, promising all possible support and generously apologising for the disaster. After the meeting the Greek premier, through Sir Michael Palairet, thanked the British Government and W Force for their efforts to help Greece. The Greek Army was now exhausted, and as conditions did not justify any further sacrifice W Force should, in the interests of the common cause, be immediately withdrawn.
The same day, 21 April, Wavell, in confirmation of verbal instructions, sent his written orders to Wilson. He was free to select the date for the beginning of the evacuation and he must take Generals Blamey and Freyberg fully into his confidence; the troops were to be taken either to Crete or to Egypt; close touch had to be kept with the Greek Government and so far as was possible any Greek personnel desired by the Greek Government should be embarked. The order also stated:
Should part of the original scheme fail or should portions of the force become cut off, they must not surrender but should endeavour to make their way into the Peloponnese or into any of the adjacent islands. It may well be possible to rescue parties from the Peloponnese at some considerably later date. You should bear in mind the possibility of later being able to evacuate transport, guns, etc., from the Southern Peloponnesian ports or beaches.
Southern Greece. Situation on 26 April 1941 after Germans Paratroop landings at Corinth
1 As the Italians demanded a formal surrender from the Greeks the negotiations were reopened, and on 23 April at Salonika the treaty was confirmed by a new protocol which also included a treaty with the Italians.